Eutopian nightmares

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

By raising the drawbridge in the face of desperate refugees and succumbing to bigotry and hatred, the EU’s utopian ideals are being abandoned for a dystopian reality.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Wednesday 1 June 2016

When Slovenia’s army began to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Croatia in November 2015, almost a decade had passed since that historic day when the former Yugoslav republic was admitted into the European Union. During this period, we had become accustomed to the wonderful fact that there were no borders within the EU – at least not of the visible kind. Despite the savage quickening of the economic, financial, social and political crisis, free travel all over Europe had become a matter of great simplicity. It was something one could count on, something that almost went without saying.

And so we only started to debate this entire business of borders, fences, barbed wire and “the strengthening of Europe’s external borders” when these outer frontiers were already in great peril. But contrary to popular belief, that peril didn’t really come from the refugees and economic migrants who started pouring in on a large scale in 2014 and 2015.

In fact, the refugees and the migrants were the ones who, by breaking through the physical frontiers, were making clear that Europe’s borders had never been truly eliminated. Quite the contrary. The more the old continent had been opening up internally, the more it had been beefing up its outer ramparts. And so, slowly but inexorably, a thing some of us like to call Fortress Europe had been born – this enormous yet infinitely fragile and self-obsessed ivory tower… And the more fragile and self-obsessed it became, the more removed from its lofty freedom-loving ideals its immediate future had become. And in 2015, that immediate future had finally merged with the present.

The discourse – both in private and in public – was soon radicalised beyond repair. The cankerous genie of the far-right had broken out of its bottle, and its twisted worldview soon became the norm. The differences between Europe’s high castles and “the streets” were soon dissolved. Instead of the alarm that should be ringing out in every house and every soul still clinging to a shred of human decency, all one could hear was a thunderous silence. The core of the entire continent has been radicalised with a ferocity quite unprecedented in modern times.

The people of Europe took to acting as if it was quite natural that the incoming refugees should have no names, faces, fates, stories and future. Even worse: we started treating people on the run from war zones as if they were so much nuclear waste; as if we had all been stripped of any semblance of historical memory; as if the entire continent had been living a giant all-pervasive lie, which had clouded our judgment and had left us quite satisfied with this vague and infinitely flimsy idea… An idea that – a quarter of a century after the collapse of the iron curtain – had been thoroughly humiliated by the construction of the two walls on the Hungarian-Serbian and the Slovenian-Croatian borders.

As hard as it is to state this out loud, the flood of refugees and terrorism Europe has witnessed in recent years is partly a consequence of its failed foreign, immigration and integration policies. Its neglect of its neighbours in the Middle East and Central Asia, and its neglected immigrant neighbourhoods at home, not to mention the active role a number of European countries have played in fuelling conflict, war and despotism in the Middle East, have blown back in the form of large-scale radicalisation.

For the European Union, the crises it is experiencing today are the consequence of decades of living in a bubble, of distancing itself from reality – both within Europe and in its neighbouring regions – while immersing itself ever further into the heartless algorithms of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. What happened was the consequence of decades of catastrophic delusions and of failed immigration policies and processes; of our being unable to grasp the realities, let alone confront them or respond to them in a constructive and proactive manner which could result in (at least) our moral distancing from the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Instead we fuelled them, through our indifference, ignorance, arms exports, ill-conceived military interventions, our favouring of trade over human rights and dignity, our support of dictators and violent, authoritarian regimes.

It is little wonder Europe was so quick to adopt the language of war: Europe, after all, had proven quite adept at starting wars while being absolutely awful at putting a stop to them. Given its historical legacy, it is hardly surprising the continent was so quick to renounce its ideals and keel over before the challenges of the present moment.

The post-terror developments in Europe are also tragic in their predictability.

First, the shutting down of borders, both inwardly and outwardly. Then the “Americanisation” of our security and the systematic creation of fear. The rapidly escalating division between “us” and “them”. The spine-chilling rise of private security firms. The radicalisation of policies, fomenting grave polarisation within society, increasing our internal frictions and fostering the rise of the far-right and even neo-Nazis, the European equivalent of Daesh. The outbreak of populism, the vanishing of what remained of our common European identity, the strengthening of both benign and malignant strains of nationalism. The crumbling of the masks dictated by our mostly feigned political correctness and the streamlining of both racism and xenophobia. The triumph of reflexes over reflection. The dehumanisation of refugees, who have left their ransacked homes fleeing the exact same demonic violence Europe had first faced in Madrid, then in London, then Paris and now Brussels.

Above all, the dehumanisation of ourselves.

These developments are something to be feared at least as much as the next terrorist attacks, which are at this point inevitable. We should be at least as afraid of these developments as we should be afraid of the thunderous silence created by our lack of reflection and the by now chronic absence of critical reasoning… That awful, inexcusable silence of our ever so comfortable European minds, the silence that will ultimately enable the extremists to shriek at the highest possible frequencies. This is what the so-called Islamic State could understand as their victory.

As early as 2004, the Dutch migration researcher Paul Scheffer told me that Europe is treading a dark and dangerous path. He went on to explain he felt that its grave mistake was to ignore some fundamental parts of human nature, and all under the guise of multiculturalism and tolerance. Holland was, he said, the best example of that wishful thinking with (socio-economically) limited expiry date.  “We were passing each other by looking the other way so determinedly that we ended up colliding,” Scheffer opined at the time when Europe was facing its first major terrorist attack in Madrid and the Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh (the maker of Submission) was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri. The idea of the functioning multicultural society was for the very first time shaken to the bones. Even a dozen years ago, Scheffer was well aware of what was likely to happen to a continent steeped in a chronic lack of reflection in the times of growing open conflicts.

The tragedies were as awfully, inexcusably predictable as the future we are now facing – a future we have done virtually everything in our power to facilitate.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

This is not a refugee “hotspot”. It’s a prison!

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 6.0/10 (2 votes cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Following the EU-Turkey deal, refugees in Greece are being held in so-called “hotspots”, which are actually prisons, and many are now on hunger strike.

This is not a refugee hotspot. Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

This is not a refugee hotspot. Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

Thursday 5 May 2016

Following the closing of the Balkan refugee route and the sealing of the deal between the European Union and Turkey, some 55,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in Greece. Many of them are being kept inside detention centres, where the living conditions are well beyond disastrous.

The worst of it can be observed on the Aegean island of Chios. On the island, the EU directed the Greek authorities – who had little say in the matter – to seal the fate of tens of thousands of refugees by opening up the VIAL hotspot, where around a thousand people are currently awaiting their fate.

All of them have arrived in Greece since 20 March 2016, when the deal between Brussels and Ankara entered into force. The ruthless bargain prevented the refugees and migrants from pressing on further into Europe, instead cramming them into a number of what are effectively jails.

These institutions are located both on the Greek mainland and on its islands. But the so-called VIAL “hotspot”, which is actually a prison, was soon to attain a special notoriety for becoming the metaphor for the xenophobic and racist European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies. The strategists in Brussels had decided to turn the already politically, socially and economically ransacked country of Greece into a sort of human wastebin, thereby exacerbating the suffering of tens of thousands of people.

Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

In these times of spreading hatred, racism and growing neo-Nazi parties, it seems especially important to call things by their proper names. The “hotspot” I am currently reporting from is nothing less than the concentration camp of our day.

The camp – located a 20-minute drive away from the island’s capital – presents the visitor with a frightening picture. The refugees and migrants I have been talking to all related stories and experiences that should make the whole of Europe shudder in shame. Yet the very capacity for shame seems to have been driven from the continent by a narcissistic self-obsession and a highly aggressive drive to keep oneself permanently within the comfort zone.

In the early evening, I got to talking to an Afghan girl named Geza who spoke perfect English. I met her next to a hole in the camp’s fence. Many of the refugees were using the hole to get in and out of the camp, especially since the police presence was startlingly light on account of the holidays.

“We are being treated like garbage – as if we had the plague or something,” Geza told me: “We can no longer bear this. There are worms and caterpillars inside our food. There is not enough water, and a lot of what we get isn’t even drinkable. There is not nearly enough medicine, and many of us have grown severely ill. The children have had the worst of it. Almost half of everyone here is underage. We have no idea what we’ve done to be treated this way. All we wanted was to live in peace.”

Geza told me she and her husband Farhan had fled both the Taliban and the Islamic State. “Please tell everyone what’s happening to us here. This is a crime. We are all so hungry. And we are being humiliated. Me and my husband, we have been here for 40 days. Right after we arrived, we put in an application to be granted asylum. We were supposed to get a response 10 days ago, but nothing happened. No one in this camp was given a reply. And so we are waiting. We have no information to go on. We are cut off from the world. Both me and Farhan are very scared they will send us back to Afghanistan.”

This is a common, virtually universal fear among the residents of the VIAL detention centre. As recently as a week ago, the entire institution was hermetically sealed – until the exhausted and severely traumatised refugees decided to stage a protest. A certain threshold seemed to have been reached, and the local authorities made the tactical decision to permit their wards at least a modicum of free movement.

Yet the prison is located far from both the town and the port, which is why most people opted to search for food in the nearby villages, where all the shops were closed on account of Orthodox Easter. One enterprising local set up a vending stall right in front of the hotspot. The prices were about three times what one would pay in the town, yet the vast majority of the refugees and the migrants had already spent what money they had to get to Europe.

Most of them were also not at all eager to stray too far from the prison. One can hardly blame them for not feeling safe. The last few weeks saw a number of far-right groups attack both the refugees and the volunteers helping them. After 18 months of an open-door policy, the impoverished and economically ravaged island has finally refused to welcome the influx of fresh refugees. From what I could see, the islanders did this more to appease Brussels than from any genuine feelings of resentment or enmity. Be that as it may, the island which has been turned into a prison is one of the key images for envisioning our fast-approaching common European future.

“It is impossible to live here. There are as many as 20 of us inside a single container. During the day the whole place gets unbearably hot. I am sick to my stomach all the time – all the time,” I was told by a very dignified lady named Batul Rahim, standing at the front door of the modern concentration camp. “We have no privacy, we’re hungry, and our children are exhausted. Most of them have no idea what is going on, and I think it is really better that way… I fled Mosul because of the Islamic State – they would have killed us for being Christians. All Christians were forced to escape, and a lot of them lost their lives.”

With a tearful break in her voice, Rahim told me she was a mother of a two-year old boy named Samuel and a three-year-old girl, Sonia, who were hiding behind her legs. “The world has forgotten about us. Some of our relatives managed to reach Germany and the Netherlands, while we have been thrown to rot in this jail.”

The grief-stricken woman also expressed her mortal fear that the European bureaucrats were about to send her back to hell. Had I decided to soothe her worries, I would have been forced to lie to her face. Virtually all the Syrians I encountered were telling stories of a devastated homeland and their bankrupt illusions about Europe.

Koda, a 57-year-old Iranian from Esfahan, told me he had arrived in Greece a mere four hours too late – on the very morning of 20 March when the bargain between the EU and Turkey raised the drawbridge, the bargain that seems certain to wreck hundreds of thousands of lives.

Ironically, the deal between the European Union and Turkey has been hailed as a great coup for European diplomacy, as if it has somehow solved the refugee question rather than exacerbated it. After the Balkan refugee route got closed and the Turkish authorities set about fulfilling their well-rewarded new array of tasks, the number of refugees and migrants reaching the Greek islands experienced a huge drop.

Most of those who had already been to Greece only to be thwarted by the closing down of the Macedonian-Greek border ended up in the so-called hotspots. At an improvised tent settlement in Idomeni, some 11,000 people are still waiting for the border to open. But they are waiting for a miracle that is simply not on the horizon – short of an actual miracle. Some 3,000 people are currently residing in the port of Piraeus, waiting for the holiday’s end when the Greek authorities are set to cart them off to prisons. Precious few of them are likely to reach the desired goal of their journey – meaning Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. They have made an investment of a lifetime in gathering both the gumption and the resources to flee the ravages of their war-torn lands only to be thrown in jail. And one thing is certain: they shall remain there for much longer than only a few weeks.

“Europe has her mouth full of human rights. If I remember correctly, your soldiers came to Afghanistan in the name of human rights as well, true? Well, I have come to Europe and I am certainly human. But where are my rights?” asked a 27-year-old Afghan named Hekmetulla Hakani, as he stood in front of the VIAL hotspot. “Me and my wife and my daughter have been trapped here for 40 days. My daughter is only 10-months-old. This is so horrible. I simply want to go home and die there.”

Hailing from the city of Helmand, Hakani had worked as a translator on NATO’s ISAF mission, which earned him enough credible Taliban threats to force him to flee for his life. “They have imprisoned us here like terrorists. It is as if they don’t think we’re even human. We are suffering so hard, we have no idea what will happen to us. The policemen are telling us to simply wait – the ones that will even talk to us, that is, because most of them won’t. A lot of the children here are seriously ill. And we have no money left. There is nowhere for us to go,” Hakani insisted.

“Why does it have to be this way? What have we done? Why does Europe hate us so much?” the former NATO translator asked in frustration and bewilderment.

Since my encouter with these inmates, the situation at the VIAL prison camp has gone from bad to worse. Today, Wednesday 4 May, many of the refugees went on hunger strike, with some going as far as to sew their lips together. “I’m going to kill myself. I will cut my throat with the razor-wire. I will bleed slowly. It won’t hurt … I can’t stand this any more. I’m sick. Everything hurts,” screamed Hamid, a distressed Palestinian-Syrian from Yarmouk camp who is now among the hunger strikers who have sewed their lips together. “We know what will happen to us. I can see my future it the eyes of the policemen. Or in the eyes of local people. They hate us. We are not people to them. I want to die.”

Something must be seriously wrong when someone who has risked their lives to escape death in the hopes of finding a safe refuge decides that life is not worth living anymore.

Extra police have been deployed to deal with the situation. But the answer does not lie in finding better ways to keep the inmates locked up, but to set them free. After all, these refugees have committed no crime, save to believe that Europe could provide them with a humane shelter from the hell they have fled.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 6.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Bombing ISIS in Syria will not tackle extremism in Brussels

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Rather than airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), Belgium should strike at the root causes of homegrown extremism.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Tuesday 5 April 2016

When we moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.

So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the capital’s metro system, which claimed at least 31 lives and left another 330 injured, some in critical condition. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family was all right.

The scenes of the destruction and slaughter seemed almost unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both hubs over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November of last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.

Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts NATO’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”

Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream. “It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”

Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street.” one refugee who has received threats was quoted as saying.

In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of suspected intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted Justice Minister Jan Jambon to try to tender his resignation.

However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the 11 September attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, amongst others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.

Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on our privacy.

The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to blast through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.

This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed as “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”

Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in neighbouring Holland to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25% since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “water-tight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamic extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.

Later, the far-right party went further to demand the reintroduction of the death penalty for Muslim terrorists and their accomplices (but preusambly not for non-Muslim ones) and, like Trump across the Atlantic, the VB wants to ban foreign Muslims from entering Belgium.

But some are hopeful that the combined power of young Muslim and mainstream moderates of the divide can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Hassan Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”

For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume airstrikes against ISIS targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.

As I’ve argued in before, the government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” diverts vital resources from the policies that would prevent the homegrown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.

The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, as well as investing in education and job creation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 March 2015.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The ‘Brexit’ handicap

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Raya Al-Jadir

Leaving the EU could be catastrophic for disabled Britons, yet little attention has been given to their needs or their voices.

Brexit disabled

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Britain leaving the European Union would have “harmful” and “dire” consequences for disabled people, according to two of the first leading disabled figures to speak out on June’s referendum.

The UK will decide whether to leave the EU in a referendum on 23 June, but very little has been said publicly, especially by the government, about the potential impact of this vote on disabled people.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, criticised the campaigns both for and against Brexit for failing to spell out “what the impact of Brexit would be on disabled people”.

She said: “We need to know the effects on our income – for example, if the economy took a nosedive, would we be facing yet more cuts?”

“Would there be a rush to also withdraw from the European Convention [on Human Rights] as well?” she added. “There are many unanswered questions.”

Another disabled campaigner who has spoken out is Miro Griffiths, a former government advisor and project officer for the European Network on Independent Living, and now a lecturer, researcher and teacher.

He said he believed that Britain’s exit from the EU “would have dire consequences for disabled people”.

Griffiths said the EU could be criticised on many issues, such as its failure to implement strategies to protect refugees who enter Europe, but “disabled people’s life chances would certainly not improve if we were to leave”.

By remaining, he said, disabled people can continue to use existing EU frameworks and directives to “continually challenge our state and the power it exerts”.

He suggested that “sustained grassroots pressure” and “diplomatic dialogue” could lead to the EU challenging the damage caused by the UK government’s cuts to disabled people’s support.

Griffiths also said he feared that the “fetishism” of some Brexit supporters on the issue of UK “sovereignty” would lead to a post-Brexit UK government “imposing a concept of justice that reinforces and validates their actions, which will continue to oppress many groups”.

This could lead, he said, to disabled people becoming “voiceless – with reduced support from our European neighbours”.

Griffiths, a member of the British Council’s advisory panel on disability issues, said: “Many will argue that the EU is complacent in tackling the social injustice within many member states and I would agree with their analysis.”

But he added: “If we are isolated from our supporters in Europe, then our resistance towards the state is merely interpreted as disobedience.”

Another prominent disabled figure who has spoken out in favour of staying in the EU is the crossbench peer Lord Colin Low, who said: “I have no doubt that leaving the EU would be harmful to disabled people’s interests.”

“There have been many occasions when European legislation has been ahead of the UK’s or what the UK was prepared to deliver,” he noted.

Many disabled people’s organisations have not had the time or resources to prepare a position on Brexit, although Disability Rights UK has promised to release a statement before June’s referendum.

There has not been a disabled campaigner or user-led organisation in favour of Brexit, but two of the mainstream organisations campaigning to leave the EU commented briefly this week, although neither argued that there were benefits of Brexit that would solely apply to disabled people.

Jack Montgomery, a spokesman for Leave.EU, said: “We think that Brexit will be good for everyone in the UK.”

Edward Spalton, president of the Campaign for an Independent Britain, said: “Our view is that the UK’s own position on disability rights and practical support for disabled people is ahead of many EU countries. Of course, more can and will be done.”

“The EU has a policy with similar aims to that of the UK legislation but in many countries its implementation [is] less advanced in practice than in the UK,” he elaborated. “So the position for people with disabilities with regard to EU membership is broadly the same as for the whole population.”

But this is actually inaccurate. Due to our greater vulnerability than the general population, the consequences of a Brexit would be more serious. What would the impact be on assistants and carers recruited from other EU countries? How easy would be to travel abroad for health-related appointments? And many other unresolved question hang in the air.
The recent years of austerity have undermined the rights of people with disabilities. With the current government regarded by many disabled people as one that punishes the poor and vulnerable while helping the rich get richer, it is clear that whatever happens on 23 June, Britain’s disabled population’s battle with the Tories is set to escalate, and without the backing of the EU, we will be left alone to fight our corner.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Syria: Return to a dying land

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.0/10 (2 votes cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

As Europe turns its back on refugees, Syrians who can’t afford the “luxury” of fleeing are making the perilous journey back to their ruined homeland.

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger. Photo: © Elio Germani

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger.
Photo: © Elio Germani

Monday 7 March 2016

On the Saturday morning when the ceasefire in Syria came into effect, a weeping woman slowly approached the Turkish-Syrian border crossing Bab al Salama (Oncupinar) near Kilis. She was carrying a little girl, wrapped up in a heavy blanket. For an hour, she begged the Turkish policemen to allow her back into her broken land before she gave up.

Her aim was to take her visibly depleted and painfully pale little girl to the hospital in Azaz, located a mere four kilometres from the border. Yet the Turkish men refused to let her pass. The woman kept crying and stroking the poor girl, who soon passed away in her hands. It was only then that the Turks allowed her to cross the border.

To avoid the possible consequences.

___

Right before the border with Syria, the Turkish army vehicles turned off the main road leading to Aleppo. The blue sky above nearby Azaz was empty, violated neither by Russian jets nor the regime’s bombers. For the moment, it was also clear of Turkish Army artillery fire, which had been inflicting a week’s worth of heavy pummelling on the members of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. At the moment, the border into Syria was open only to a number of heavy trucks flying the insignia of various Turkish and Qatari humanitarian organisations. The drivers were frightened. One of the vehicles was filled with bread ovens. Lone refugees or couples were trickling in from the Syrian side, having set off from the refugee camps located between Azaz and the border.

Large bands of refugees were resting on the grassland near the border. The majority of these were really extended families, mostly children, all of them absolutely clueless as to where or whom to turn to next. A few goats and a decrepit-looking horse were grazing close by. The Turkish policemen were simply biding their time, gazing at the sky. From the look of things, accidental visitor could be easily forgiven for failing to notice he or she had just come up on one of the Syrian conflict’s most important frontlines.

“I come from a village north of Aleppo. My youngest daughter was killed last week in a regime air raid. I buried her back home in Syria and then ran away along with the rest of my family. I myself was wounded, too – my head had been hurt,” I was told by a man named Ibrahim, who pointed to the blood-soaked rags on his head. He had received medical assistance in the hospital located in the Turkish town of Kilis, where the population had more than doubled since the beginning of the Syrian war. Over the past five years of armed conflict, the far from affluent Kilis has absorbed more than 120,000 refugees and has done its best to accommodate them in a decent and humane fashion. This is the reason why the town is one of this year’s candidates for the Nobel peace prize.

“They took really good care of me. But now I have to return to the refugee camp on the Syrian side. My entire family is there,” Ibrahim clarified. From his shrapnel-nicked face, it was clear he was lucky to be alive. His humble ambition was somehow to find a place for himself and his family in Turkey, but the chances of that were looking exceedingly grim.

Turkey is hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Last week, 35,000 refugees arrived at the Oncupinar crossing in the space of 48 hours. Suleyman Tapsiz, the local governor on the Turkish side of the border, claims Kilis and the neighbouring towns will not be able to take them in. “Our doors are not closed. But there is no need to let these people into Turkey right now,” he said. Some 140,000 people are currently stuck between Azaz and the border. Should Aleppo fall, which could happen quite soon, at least 600,000 more are expected to bolt for Turkey in a matter of days.

Even a few days ago, it looked like the Turkish army was about to take control of the area between the border crossing and Azaz, thereby preventing the strategically vital town from falling into the hands of the YPG. Without doubt, that would have been a horrendous strategic blunder, triggering a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions. According to our sources, the Turkish government has opted to take “a time out” for now – mostly on account of all the pressure exerted by both the EU and the United States, especially since NATO is as yet unwilling to risk a military showdown with Russia. If the Turkish forces were to take over Azaz, such a showdown would become an inevitability.

The border is still being crossed by humanitarian convoys, merchants, those refugees who can no longer afford to stay in Turkey and members of certain rebel groups supported by Turkey. I managed to talk to some of the fighters who were waiting at the border to be readmitted to Syria. Two of them, both 18, were from the Free Syria Army (FSA), And on their way back to the front north of Aleppo after having spent the previous 10 days in a Turkish hospital. “We are under attack from all sides: ISIS, regime forces, Russian planes, and now the Kurds as well… We are all alone. No help is on the way. But we shall fight until the very end,” I was told by one of these two young fighters, who refused to tell me his name. He did relate that his family was living in Turkey, yet despite all his injuries, his only wish was to return to the frontlines as soon as possible: “My friends are dying. I am fighting for my homeland.”

After the regime’s forces and Russian planes cut off the supply lines to Aleppo, a few hundred members of various Syrian rebel groups entered Syria from Turkey. They have done so with Ankara’s official support. The Turkish authorities are desperately trying to prevent the fall of Azaz because it would mean all the Kurd-dominated areas in the north of Syria would become connected into something resembling a unified whole. In addition, the fall of Azaz would almost certainly spell the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian conflict’s decisive battlefield.

Quite the privilege

On the Turkish side of the border, about a hundred people, mostly civilians, arrived to wait to be readmitted into Syria each day. Many of them are wounded or seriously ill, their lack of funds forcing them to return home after a brief stay in one of the Turkish public hospitals. Most of the ones I talked to were not returning to their homes but rather to some form or another of temporary lodgings. As far as the world’s attention is concerned, the heart-wrenching misery of the people who had lost their homes and remained in Syria is almost forgotten. Yet inside the ransacked land, almost half of the population is currently not living at their normal addresses. These are the people who cannot afford to flee – not even to Turkey, let alone the European Union. One of the great modern ironies is that, in some quarters, being a refugee is now justly considered quite the privilege.

A number of utterly exhausted people were standing in front of the metal-wire barrier on the Turkish side of the border, waiting to be allowed to pass into their homeland. Among them, two glassy-eyed little boys were sitting on the concrete floor. Their heads were seemingly turning uncontrollably, their eyes darting hectically all over the place. It was obvious they had been profoundly traumatised and were in urgent need of medical assistance. All they had on them was one plastic bag each. The others were simply ignoring them.

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria. Photo: © Elio Germani

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria.
Photo: © Elio Germani

While on the Syrian side more than 100,000 people staying in refugee camps were hoping to be allowed to enter Turkey as soon as possible, a man named Mohamed Rahmo was trying to convince his 16-year-old son to get up and rejoin the line of those waiting to return to Syria. Tears were streaking down Rahmo’s cheeks, yet his son Mustafa remained seated, his gaze aggressively pointed to the ground. He kept hiding his face away from the light.

A little over a month ago, a Russian air raid on their small village north of Aleppo had cost Mustafa his left eye, while the right one has been severely damaged. His entire face was covered in burns. His father decided to take him to Turkey – back then, the border was still open. Mustafa underwent surgery at the public hospital in Gaziantep, but the operation was not a success. Soon after he lost the sight in his right eye as well. His father then took him to a private doctor who told them the only procedure capable of saving the eye would cost $4,000. By then, the two of them were penniless, and their only recourse was to return to Syria.

“We have to get home. I need to take care of my family. The bombing raids have cost us everything we had. Our house is badly damaged. It is so horrible, but there is nothing I can do for Mustafa. We are so poor. We cannot even afford to remain in Turkey. How could we possibly press on to Europe? We cannot afford to buy bread. Yesterday was the last time we had something to eat. We are starving,” Mohamed Rahmo recounted with a heavy heart.

With a visible effort Mustafa finally stood up. Still staring at the ground, he broke into sobs and placed himself in the queue, where most of the people were not at all eager for conversation. They were patiently waiting to be allowed to be readmitted into a war zone.

Neighbouring on ISIS

A concrete wall and a small minefield are what now separates two formerly closely connected towns, the Turkish Karkamis and the Syrian Jarablous. Today, this artificial border is one of the most unusual – and dangerous – ones in the world.

The Syrian side is controlled by ISIS fighters. At the moment, the Islamic State also controls another 50km of the Turkish border stretching westward. As far as Turkey is concerned, this area forms a sort of buffer zone with no armed Syrian Kurdish presence. For some time now, members of the YPG have been trying to gain control of Jarblous, but the town is still firmly controlled by the Sunni extremist militia. The area east of the town, on the other hand, is controlled by the Kurds.

Up until the end of last year, the border was rather peaceful. From 2012 on, a hundred people or more were crossing it daily in both directions without major problems. Many of them were foreign fighters aiming to join the various insurgent groups in the north of Syria. Some of them were certainly crossing the border to join ISIS. The part of the border stretching between Karkamis and Kilis was the most porous segment of the more than 900-km-long border between Turkey and Syria.

The conditions started to deteriorate when Turkey officially entered the war against ISIS. This, it is worth remembering, was after a long period of what some have termed “Turkish active passivity” which enabled the terrorist militia to grow in strength.

It certainly holds true that, for a while, Ankara had found the Islamic State activities quite useful. But then things began to change. A series of suicide bombing attacks came to pass, and the geo-strategic situation grew more complicated as well. Turkey suddenly found itself in a rather unenviable position. At the same time, the Kurdish question was reopened, and in a rather spectacular way.

The Turkish authorities’ first move was to shut the border with Syria, then to send in heavy military reinforcements, while placing kilometres and kilometres of concrete walls and barbed wire along the frontier. As numerous watchtowers rose up to the sky, the closing of the border severely hurt the prospects of the Syrian civilians trying to flee the war crimes perpetrated by all sides. Tens of thousands of people remained trapped on the Syrian side of the border, while some 100,000 Syrians are currently staying at Karkamis and the neighbouring refugee camps.

On the other side of the border, the members of ISIS have set up minefields to shield themselves from any possibility of Turkish incursions. To the Islamic State, Jarablous has become a key strategic operation. The only question is why the almost 70 countries which make up the coalition against ISIS are so reluctant to attack the positions of extreme Islamists around theis small town which has been deserted by most of its civilian population.

At the end of January, Karkamis saw the first direct clash between ISIS and the Turkish state. The ISIS fighters began to fire at the Turkish soldiers who had come to clear the minefield. Several gunshells came crashing down on the small impoverished Turkish town. The Turkish army responded by deploying tanks. A few days later, the Turkish security forces captured a group of people from Jarblous trying to illegally cross the border. They were equipped with suicide-bomber belts and headed for Gaziantep, located about an hour’s drive from the border.

Since then, Karkamis, situated in the immediate vicinity of the Euphrates river, the region’s key water resource, has been plunged into a state of turmoil. The residents live in constant fear of new ISIS attacks and the Syrian war spreading to the Turkish territory. The entire town has become militarised. Police cars are patrolling its every silent and dusty street, and if you are a foreign visitor, your every step is closely monitored if not actively hindered.

Streets apart

“Life here is extremely hard. You have to be on the lookout all the time,” I was told by Merwan Kaya in his small kebab shop. A year ago, Kaya escaped from Jarablous to Karkamis. “You see that street over there? If you were to follow it to the railway station, you would reach the place where my old shop used to be. The spot is precisely 400 meters away from where we are standing now. It’s incredible, isn’t it? When the Islamic State took over Jarablus, things changed. My store was destroyed, and I was forced to flee to Aleppo and then to Karkamis. Now I am a refugee who lives two streets away from his former home.”

As he recounted his tale, Kaya brewed us tea while his two sons prepared the food. There are not very many inns in Karkamis, so the talkative Syrian was quite pleased with his earnings. “Over here, a kebab costs about six times what it costs in Syria,” he laughed, right before answering the phone. The call was from his daughter, checking in after a lengthy period of time. At the moment, she was living in Latakia, a Syrian coastal town and regime fortress.

The streets in the centre of the border town were almost deserted. Up until the fighting broke out, the residents hadn’t really been all that trouble by the ISIS presence only a shot away. Less than 200m now separate the population of Karkamis from the ISIS positions, and many expect their town will become yet another frontline in the Syrian conflict, which is evidently entering its decisive phase.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)

Related posts

Lesbos: “No matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them”

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.7/10 (7 votes cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Despite the massive efforts of volunteer lifeguards, refugees are losing their lives in the Mediterranean. Europe must act… and out of compassion.

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives. Photo: ©Elio Germani

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Still shivering with the cold even in the golden foil they’d been wrapped in, two young Afghan girls were having a lively chat. Their mother was gazing out to the sea, mostly back towards Turkey, which they had departed two hours earlier on a grey dinghy.

Some 20km from the shores of Lesbos, the grey rubber boat’s engine had given out. The boat started rapidly filling up with water, but fortunately the passengers were spotted by the staffof the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. All of its members are experienced lifeguards, veterans of Catalonian and Basque beaches. Almost routinely, they set out and made sure the three rubber boats reached the small port in the picturesque village of Skala Skaminies, where at least 20 lifeguards from all over the world are currently stationed.

“It is cold, but I’m very relieved. We were getting desperate, but now we’re finally safe. I am so grateful to the people who came to rescue us,” smiled a black-garbed elderly lady from Douma, one of the quarters in Damascus hit hardest by the war. Madam S has lost both her sons to the conflict. On her long journey to Lesbos, she was accompanied by her grandchildren and the widow of her eldest son. They had seen and experienced it all. They were visibly exhausted and not up to a long conversation.

“We just want to get safe. We’re hoping Europe will take us in,” shrugged the younger of the two boys while fiddling with a pile of fake life-jackets. Most of these deadly fakes, it should be noted, had actually been made by Syrian children in garage factories all along the Turkish coast. Right now, the Syrian children are the ones who can provide the dirt-cheapest labour to be found.

Proactively saving lives

"The worst part is when you have to decide who you're going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.” Photo: ©Elio Germani

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On Lesbos, countless NGOs and volunteers are toiling without pause to contain the tidal wave of human tragedy. But no matter how hard they try, it is never enough. The migrants and refugees keep dying on a massive scale.

“We’re all trying to the best of our abilities,” a thickly bearded man named Joaquim Acedo told me as we stood out in the cold winter sun. “Most mornings, we are already at sea by six when the first boats start coming in. Our first and only objective is to save lives. As for politics, it is not something I care to think about. I’ve got no time for that.”

But Acedo added an important afterthought. “Reaching Lesbos from Turkey by regular ferry costs €10 and is absolutely safe. Getting here by rubber boat costs €1,200 and can easily cost you your life.”

Acedo is the co-ordinator of the hi-tech Spanish rescue team. Proactiva Open Arms has certainly risen to the occasion.  “There’s quite a lot of us: Sea-Watch, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Portuguese coast guard, the Greek coast guard, Frontex, the American,” the tired young man explained. “We’re co-ordinating our efforts as best we can and pushing our limits every day. But we really can use all the help we can get. Especially now, with the weather improving and more and more people pouring in every day.”

This was Joaquim Acedo’s second tour on Lesbos since Proactiva joined the action in September. Each team normally serves for 15 days, then its members go home utterly exhausted. All of them are participating on a purely voluntary basis, which means that the ones with regular jobs have to use up their vacation in order to be allowed to save lives.

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown,” Acedo added somberly. »Sometimes there are 40 people in the water, all of them screaming for their lives. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”

No compassion without direct action

Last year alone, almost 450,000 people entered the EU through Lesbos – almost half of everyone who reached the Greek Islands through Turkey. Lesbos, one needs to keep in mind, is an island with some 90,000 residents and an exceptionally weak humanitarian infrastructure. Despite all that, it is now the EU’s key entry point for migrants and refugees.

As things stand, there is almost no EU presence on the island, if we discount Frontex, the EU agency for securing the union’s external borders. In the months to come, the Frontex personnel’s jurisdiction is sure to widen considerably. The EU’s main “strategic” answer to the humanitarian tragedy is to strengthen its outer border, especially the border with Turkey. A part of this “solution” was the recent deal with the Turkish authorities to take on most of the responsibility for the incoming migrants and refugees. The sum handed over to Ankara by the European Union was €3 billion.

Last year, around 350 people drowned on the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece – enough of them so that a new location for a graveyard had to be found in Mytilini since there was no more room in the old one. This year, 70 souls have already been lost to the journey. This particular crime against humanity is only getting worse.

On the day I visited their venerable operation, the Spanish lifeguards saved more than 50 lives – lives that the European political elites and European public opinion increasingly perceive as a threat to their Christian way of life.

“But how can this be? Such a view is absolutely unacceptable to a Christian,” exclaimed Father Christophoris, an Orthodox priest who I sat down with in a smoke-filled café in the nearby mountain village of Sikaminia. Almost 14 years ago, Kristoforis himself had made the long journey here all the way from California. This is why he now considers helping the migrants and the refugees to be the focus of his life’s mission as a priest.

“The refugees have been coming here to Lesbos for 15 years now,” he explained to me over a steaming cup of coffee. “First from Afghanistan, then from Iraq, and now from Syria. Our duty is to help them as much as we can. All of us could be in their place but for the grace of God. This is our chance to choose between being good and being evil – it is as simple and straightforward as that. There is nothing more Christian than helping out a fellow human being. It is a sacred duty of each and every one of us. And it is also at the core of this great humanistic culture the EU is founded on, at least in principle.”

This remarkable blond-haired holy man is now at the heart of refugee relief co-ordination on the northern part of the island. The last time there was such an influx of desperate souls in these parts was in 1921 and 1922, when many Greeks were on the run from Turkey. They, too, had been very much a burden to the locals.

“There is no compassion without direct action,” father Christophoris informed me with a wistful smile. “And that is why the contribution of all the volunteers and the locals here has been priceless. They have come here from Greece and from all around the world, and they replaced the state. They clearly demonstrated precisely what needs to be done. They have done what was humanly possible to preserve the face of civilisation.”

The warmth of a cold reception

Cold in Moria. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Cold in Moria.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Most of the people at the Moria refugee camp were shivering, some of them uncontrollably. On this day, the entire heart of the Mediterranean was wretchedly cold. The nearby mountain peaks had recently been whitened with snow, making the refugees’ journey even more ardous.

Wrapped in swathes of golden foil and blueish blankets, the refugees were very grateful for each cup of hot tea handed out by the volunteers. The children kept clinging to each other as the women wrapped themselves tight in their shawls and headscarfs. The men were seeking out what information they could get on how to continue with their journey. Most of them were disheartened to find out that, owing to a shipworkers strike, all the ferries to Piraeus had been cancelled. For a while, all they could do was stare at their cellphones while trying to come up with a plan B.

I was approached by a man named Said, hailing from the greater Aleppo region. “We’re so cold,” he told me. “How much longer will we have to stay here? Is it true that Germany has already closed its borders to the refugees?”

Said had reached Lesbos early that morning, accompanied by his wife, six sons and three daughters. The eleven of them formed a close huddle. Freezing half to death, most of them did not much feel like talking. They’d had to wait nine days to cross from Turkey to Greece. They borrowed most of the money they needed to reach Europe from their relatives. They have no idea how they will be able to repay them.

“We are running for our lives. We were hoping to remain in Syria, but it was not possible. Things get worse there every day. I had to protect my children,” Said explained his predicament. Unlike many of his fellow refugees aiming for Germany or Sweden, this hollow-cheeked man with an understandably distracted look in his eyes didn’t really care where his flight would deliver him. “All we want is to be safe. We simply want to find a place where we will not be bombed every day.”

Closing the borders

“I spent a great deal of this summer connected to the internet and watching footage of our people being warmly greeted in Germany,” Farouk confided. “And so I eventually decided to set out myself. I knew that if I remained in Syria, I would almost certainly be murdered. I don’t have any powerful friends on either side. I’ve also been against the war from the beginning. But I couldn’t leave my parents, could I? They were the ones who suggested I should join one of the refugee groups headed for Turkey.”

I was talking to Farouk under a metal awning in Mytilini, where he and some comrades had sought shelter from the icy rain. The men were sifting through their options. They had no money to sleep in a hotel, and the combination of the rain, the cold and their utter exhaustion was preventing them from walking back the 15km to the refugee camp.

After a while, a few stray dogs entered our grimy resting place. The Syrian youths twitched in something quite akin to panic, so the freezing animals took flight and retreated under a nearby staircase.

The distance between the comfort zone and the bottom of the food chain is so often a matter of geographical and temporal coincidence.

Farouk proved exceptionally well-informed about every aspect of the so-called Balkan refugee route. On leaving home, he knew that his chances of securing a new life in Europe were much slimmer than they would have been a few months ago. But staying put would have meant a much graver risk. The fact that Farouk hailed from Syria certainly increases his chances of breaking through to where he wants to go. But the chances of him actually being granted asylum are slim to none.

The European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies are degenerating by the hour. Within EU territory, several hundred thousand refugees have been waiting for months to enter the job market. Even Germany, having set an example by opening its doors wide open, eventually decided to reach for the handbrake.

In many ways, it is little wonder. The Merkel administration is facing ever-more bitter opposition from within the ranks of its own party. The German open-door policy is irrevocably over. As a consequence, the Balkan refugee route is closing down.

Last Tuesday, the Austrian authorities decided only 37,500 people would be allowed to apply for asylum this year. The regime at the Austrian-Slovenian border, where for the past three months the Schengen arrangements have become but a wistful memory, is sure to get even stricter than it is today.

In the weeks and months to come, the Germans will start returning thousands of people to Austria, while the Austrians are bound to start funneling them off to the small barricaded country of Slovenia. At the same time, the Macedonian authorities have temporarily closed their Greek border at Gevgelija. As early as last autumn, the Macedonians at the border with Greece had begun to turn back the refugees who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to our information, there is a rather substantial chance of them soon sealing the border entirely. The way things stand, the most likely scenario is that the brunt of the burden will once again fall on the economically ransacked Greece. Brussels, which recently sold its share of responsibility for the refugees to increasingly unstable Turkey, is about to re-sacrifice Greece at the altair of its own short-sighted interests.

From here to the final rise of the neo-Nazi movements like the Golden Dawn is but a short step. The anti-refugee sentiment has become the European state of mind. This is true both at the level of the increasingly xenophobic public opinion and at the level of the political elites, which have finally been freed from wearing the masks of political correctness. This not only pertains to the former communist parts of Europe, but also to countries like Switzerland and Denmark, where on arrival the refugees are now stripped of a part of their assets.

“We will never go back”

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Last Friday night, several thousand people were waiting in the icy wind at the Mytilini port to get a ferry to Pireaus and Kavala. Due to a long shipworker strike, some 3,800 refugees were stranded on the island. Around 65% of them were women and children.

All over the port, the refugees were seeking relief from the savage cold. Very few of them were appropriately dressed for such arctic conditions. Some of them were forced to wait out in the cold for five hours or more. Almost none of them felt like talking. The only thing they were interested in was the hour when the two ferries were scheduled to leave.

Three Afghan youths had managed to set fire to a garbage heap and were now standing beside it to keep warm. They had been on the road for 30 days. “We will never go back. All three of us have borrowed money to get here. We first have to work hard to pay it back – only then can we start taking care of ourselves and our families. I want to work in the computing industry,” said 19-year-old Reza from Kabul.

The half a dozen Greek policemen in charge ordered the great mass of freezing refugees to form three long columns. The two enormous ships were not set to leave for another two hours.

By the time the refugees were finally allowed to board, most of them were so tired and cold they were unable to feel any joy. It was as if they were all too aware of what awaited them on the remainder of their Balkan journey.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.7/10 (7 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

The UN’s Insecurity Council

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

The UN Security Council has a long track record of failing to resolve conflicts. Now it is also in danger of bringing the major powers to blows.

UN SC

Wednesday 4 November 2015

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent surprise visit to Israel and Palestine followed fast on the heels of France’s efforts in the UN Security Council to issue a presidential statement in support of the deployment of international observers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and other holy sites in Jerusalem.

Such a flurry of activity by and within the UN is clearly intended to calm the violence that has been escalating for the past month. But even with the best intentions, does the UN in its current form have any capability or credibility in this conflict?

The French draft on international observers, by focusing on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, above all gives credibility to the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about religion – but it also confuses a symptom with the disease.

The Temple Mount is only a microcosm of the wider conflict and it is not where the greatest abuses occur. It would be far better and more useful if international observers were deployed across the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem to monitor the daily transgressions there.

Better still would be an international peacekeeping force, which would be good for both sides. For Palestinians, it would offer protection from Israel’s arbitrary and repressive military rule. For Israelis, it would provide security without the corrupting domestic influence of draconian militarism. For both sides, it could offer the breathing space required to rebuild bridges burnt over the past couple of decades.

However, it is near impossible that such an ambitious proposal would fly, if even the idea of proposing international guardian angels at Jerusalem’s holy sites is meeting with such stiff resistance.

Israel is adamantly opposed to the French proposal. “Israel is not the problem on the Temple Mount; it’s the solution. We maintain the status quo,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed defiantly.

And Israel, through its patron and ally, the United States, holds an effective veto over the UN. Washington has exercised its veto right, as one of the five permanent member of the Security Council, to shield Israel dozens of times, not to mention the threat, or fear, of a veto on numerous other occasions to stifle resolutions at their inception.

But it is not just the US that has exploited its veto power irresponsibly to undermine global and local security. Other permanent members have been similarly reckless.

Take Syria as an example. Moscow, along with Beijing, has vetoed four resolutions on Syria. Displaying a multilateralism of sorts, all five of the Security Council’s permanent members, either directly or indirectly, have been involved in the Syrian civil war.

Rather than working for the common global interest of, first, preventing, and now, ending the Syrian conflict, they have selfishly been pursuing their own perceived narrow national interests. Moreover, the Security Council’s failures do not just stop at the here and now. The council’s inability to defang conflict is legendary, with one of the most alarming examples being the Rwandan genocide.

This is partly because the Security Council’s architecture is not fit for purpose. Intended primarily to prevent global conflicts involving the major powers, it is ineffective in regional or proxy warfare.

The Security Council has arguably succeeded in this mission and, even during the Cold War, it helped prevent direct confrontation between the major powers of the capitalist and communist camps. However, they did, and continue to, engage in proxy conflicts, with Syria being the most notable current example.

Additionally, most conflicts today are local or regional ones, and so are difficult to defuse with this architecture, especially the incredibly problematic veto right, which blocks the ability for collective action if just one permanent member objects.

Moreover, we have reached a dangerous fork in the road. Nowadays the Security Council is in danger of magnifying, rather than dissipating, conflict, as its paralysis over Syria and the involvement of its permanent members in Syria demonstrates.

There is an urgent need to reform the UN’s architecture to make it a more effective force for global peace and stability.

A growing chorus of voices argue that the number of permanent members of the Security Council should be enlarged to reflect the contemporary reality of the world and to better include unrepresented regions. Candidates put forward include India, Brazil and the European Union.

However, an enlarged Security Council in which its new permanent members also exercised a veto would likely paralyze this body even more than it already is. It is my view that, with or without enlargement, the veto has to go.

Given the gravity and importance of the issues it deals with, a supermajority voting system could be established in which  a resolution would pass if, say, at least two-thirds of the 15 members of the Security Council (including the 10 temporary one).

However, this does little to address the fundamentally undemocratic and paternalistic nature of the Security Council, which effectively subordinates the will of the international community of nations to that of just five countries.

This can be addressed by making the Security Council subordinate to the General Assembly, and the executor of its will. Of course, for the current permanent members, who would have to agree unanimously to such a step, it would be tantamount to turkeys voting for Christmas.

In addition, if that kind of power is transferred to the General Assembly, larger countries would justifiably say that this unfairly discriminated against them. The UN’s current system of one country, one vote means that tiny Tuvalu, with a population of just under 11,000, carries as much weight as China’s 1.35 billion. This means that if the General Assembly were to start handling issues of international security directly, it would also need to be reformed, with a weighted voting system reflecting individual country’s populations – or the division of larger countries into voting regions, each of which would receive a seat at the UN.

Some small or pariah countries, such as Jewish Israel and Shia Iran, feel that the General Assembly has an intrinsic bias against them. Many Israelis are convinced Israel is held to a different standard.

Whether or not this view is accurate, such situations are possible. Just like a national democracy can turn into a dictatorship of the majority, the same can occur within an international democracy. Avoiding such eventualities would require a powerful constitution to govern the UN’s reformed security mandate and a “do no harm” philosophy.

But even if the Security Council were reformed to overcome its inertia, could it resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Many peace activists on both sides are convinced it could, while the Palestinian Authority and PLO have premised their global diplomatic strategy on the idea that the international community, represented by the UN, holds the keys to peace.

At a certain level, this is a valid point of view. Centralising the international response and rooting it in international law would, at the very least, remove the foreign meddling that created and fuels the conflict. At best, it would empower the international community to address the root causes fuelling the conflict. However, this would require a shift away from the long-deceased Oslo paradigm and towards a civil rights platform, identifying and empowering local partners who can build the popular support necessary to lead their peoples towards peaceful coexistence.

But even if the international community were able to act as a single voice and find creative ways to tackle and address the root issues, this would not necessarily resolve the conflict. After all, the UN played a major role in helping create the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first place.

When it voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947, the newly conceived UN failed to ensure local buy-in, and this foreign hubris had dire consequences. Back then, failing to gain Palestinian and Arab acceptance led to war. Today, failure to gain Israeli support also risks leading to war or, at the very least, Israel openly embracing its pariah status, entering into self-imposed global isolation, and taking the gloves off completely.

The UN and the wider international community can only help lead Israelis and Palestinians to water. But they cannot force them to drink from the font of peace against their will.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 October 2015.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Al-Aqsa: Spiritual battleground

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

For Muslims and Jews to share peacefully and justly the Holy Sanctuary/Temple Mount requires the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 September 2015

The growing familiarity of clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters inside the al-Aqsa Mosque has not weakened their impact on my Palestinian neighbours and friends in Jerusalem.

The picturesque, stone-lined alleyways of an already tense Old City are seething with anger and frustration, punctuated by Israeli surveillance helicopters that hang in the air. Even unreligious Palestinians who have never set foot inside churches or mosques are furious. They partly envisage their wider demise encapsulated by the struggle over the Noble Sanctuary, as they call it, or the Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews.

“We call on the international community, including Arab countries and Muslim states, to intervene immediately before Israel succeeds in launching a global holy war,” urged Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian politician, activist and academic.

Though this largely secular conflict is far from being a “holy war”, as I have argued before, if Israel continues down its unilateral path on this issue, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The religious symbolism of the tensions around the holy site have sent tremors and shockwaves across the region and internationally. The clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, and the Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, provoked a stern warning from neighbouring Jordan, with which Israel has a peace accord. “Anymore provocations in Jerusalem will affect the relationship between Jordan and Israel,” warned King Abdullah. “Jordan will have no choice but to take action, unfortunately.”

The European Union and the United States also expressed their concerns about the escalating situation. “It is crucial that all parties demonstrate calm and restraint and full respect for the status quo of the holy sites,” European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters.

The “status quo” in question is one that has governed the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount since Israel conquered Jerusalem in 1967, whereby the Islamic Waqf and Jordan manage the site and control access to it, with limited non-Muslim visits permitted but worship banned.

But it is apprehension that the Israeli right intends to tear up this status quo that has fuelled the latest clashes – just as they did last year. Back then, Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel and threatened to review its peace treaty with Israel following a Knesset debate, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin, on whether or not Israel should seize sovereignty of the holy site and allow Jewish worship there.

“Israelis are trying to establish a precedent by dividing [the Holy Sanctuary] into sections and time segments, so they can give Israeli settlers access to our mosque,” said Abdel-Aziz Abasi, who is a member of Mourabitoun, a group of Palestinian activists, which Israel recently banned, who see their role as guarding the compound against Jewish encroachment. “We will never agree to such a plan.”

Although relatively few Israelis actually visit the Temple Mount and have traditionally been content with the status quo, Religious Zionists and Jewish extremists have managed to make headway in recent years by framing the issue as one of religious freedom at Judaism’s holiest site.

Even the lunatic fringe, such as Yehuda Glick, who fantasises about constructing the Third Temple, is pursuing the civil liberties path. Appropriating language from the South African civil rights movement, Glick said at a demonstration during Ramadan: “We’re here to protest against the apartheid on the Temple Mount.”

But what the religious freedom argument airbrushes out is that this issue is about far more than the right to worship, especially in a situation where Israel regularly restricts Palestinian entry to al-Aqsa.

You could also say that the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount is simply a spiritual microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at large.

This jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s old city, with its gold-plated Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline, contains many of the elements perpetuating the conflict, writ spiritual: control of and sovereignty over the land, asymmetric power, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, movement restrictions, draconian laws, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Personally, I’m in favour of Jews, one day, worshipping on their religion’s most sacred, hallowed ground. And my view, though controversial today, is not unprecedented in the history of Islam. Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and, some historians posit, permitted Jews to worship there, a practice which continued for a century, into the Umayyad era.

One Jewish convert to Islam, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors. It is even possible that Omar allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

In the presumably enlightened 21st century, it should be possible for Muslims and Jews to share this holy site, which has no shortage of space, and rediscover the many long centuries of relatively peaceful coexistence they enjoyed. Perhaps, one day, in a possible future, Jews and Muslims will be able to share the Noble Sanctuary’s tranquil and soothing esplanade, which takes up about a sixth of the old city’s surface area, and where families picnic and children play football.

However, for that to happen requires the resolution of the underlying conflict. Without peace, it is impossible to think that Palestinians and Israelis will find the necessary good will and trust to compromise over this holiest of locations.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 September 2015.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The long march from Syria to Europe

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.0/10 (9 votes cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Joining Syrian refugees on their long trek to the EU, Boštjan Videmšek discovers how easy it is to lose faith in humanity and how hard to restore it.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Thursday 6 August 2015

By the side of the road leading from the small town of Kanjiža in northern Serbia to the Hungarian border, a large band of 40 or so Syrian refugees – women, children, young men, an elder – had just sat down to rest. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and the group was finally getting some respite from the sun. They were plucking not quite ripe plums from a nearby tree and checking their mobile phones on which they had stored the directions for the fastest and safest route to the border.

This was, of course, only one of the numerous groups making their final bid to penetrate the fortress of the European Union. On the flatlands by the oily and quiet Tisa river where we joined the marchers, life was unfolding according to its ancient, decidedly slow rhythms. Most of the residents have long become accustomed to the endless procession of human suffering. In the last few months, Serbia has been turned into yet another waystation for a human tragedy mere language can hardly describe. It is no exaggeration to say this tragedy is sure to become one of the definitive humanitarian stories of the 21st century.

Horrible, just horrible

A few kilometres away from the border, a man in the group started to speak: “If all goes well, we’ll be there in two and a half hours… We’ve been travelling for weeks, some of us for months.”

His name, he told us, was Rami. He was 27 and hailed from the northwestern Syrian city of Raqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the Islamic State (ISIS). He fled the city soon after it was captured by the members of the radical Sunni militia. He claims he had no choice. He had received word his name had been put on their death list. During the initial months of the Syrian conflict, he had been working as a journalist and had decided to help out one of his American colleagues. He had even been issued a press card by a prominent international newspapers.

This was not something ISIS was likely to forgive.

“It made no difference that I come from one of Raqa’s strongest families. If I were to stay, they would have certainly killed me, no questions asked. The worst of it was that my own cousins were out to get me too,” Rami reflected, as we trudged on along the dusty local thoroughfare. “Almost all of them had joined ISIS. Almost everyone in Raqa had gone over to them, that is why they’re so strong… Raqa will always be their territory. And so there was no one who could protect me.”

Rami’s first destination was Turkey, where he had to stay longer than he originally planned since he got robbed in Istanbul. It took him a long time to earn enough money to continue on his journey. As soon as he was able to, he set off for the Turkish coast. In the meantime, he learned that his father had been killed, while his brother, who also refused to join the Islamic State, had been severely wounded while fighting the Syrian government forces.

In the Turkish port of Bodrum, one of the region’s hubs for human trafficking, Rami met the other members of the group he was currently travelling with. That was two months ago. Since then, they have not once parted company.

As we walked on, Ali, 28, joined our conversation. He was a civil engineer from Azaz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border which has seen heavy fighting between various insurgent groups, after being almost completely razed by government bombers. “In Turkey,the traffickers robbed us on two different occasions, and we also got a lot of trouble from the police,” he told us. “We sailed to the Greek island of Kos in a rubber dinghy. The boat was really small, but somehow everyone you see here managed to fit. It seems incredible that we survived. At least half of these people don’t know how to swim. If the boat had capsized, we would all have died. It was horrible, just horrible!”

 A modern-day odyssey

After arriving at Kos, where the recent heavy influx of refugees has plunged the island into chaos, the band of Syrians took a ferry to Athens. Every day, hundreds of refugees and immigrants enter the Greek capital. The Greek authorities, bogged down on countless other domestic and foreign fronts, had virtually stopped dealing with the problem. Their solution was simply to leave the door wide open. It was little wonder that the flood of refugees immediately headed for the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. A new route to the European Union soon gained prominence, starting in Macedonia and leading through Serbia all the way up to Hungary.

Three weeks ago, Hungary started building a wall measuring 175km in length. Its basic objective is to put a stop to the influx of refugees and immigrants. Yet so far the Hungarians haven’t been very successful at it. In the days we spent on both sides of the border, the situation was quite the contrary. The commencement of the immense construction project has only speeded up the current rate of migration, especially through Macedonia and Serbia, where the authorities understand very well what the erection of such a wall could mean.

In reality, the wall is not so much an actual obstacle for the incoming refugees as it is a clear political statement by the far-right government of Viktor Orbán.

“We made quite a large part of our journey through Greece and Macedonia on foot. It was horrible – it was hot, and we were all so hungry and thirsty… The people there refused to have anything to do with us,” Ali recalled in an effable tone, as if he were describing, say, a lovely view of the sea. “Somewhere in Macedonia, where we were generally treated very badly by the police, they herded us on to some buses which took us to the Serbian border. The entire region was full of refugees.”

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

After a few more days trek, they reached Belgrade. “We all slept in the park. Belgrade, too, is flooded with refugees. But for us, that was actually a good thing, since we managed to get all the information we needed on how to safely cross the Hungarian border,” Ali continued.

In Belgrade, our band of refugees learned there were several viable options for reaching Hungary. The first option was a so-called ‘unaided’ journey, meaning travelling by themselves. The route itself was clearly defined and there was plenty of useful information on how to maximize one’s chances. But since the situation at the border was so unpredictable, this was considered to be the riskiest choice. The alternative was to entrust one’s fate to the professionals, the human traffickers organizing the trip from the cities of northern Vojvodina (like Subotica, Kanjiža, Horgoš) to Hungary and then onward to Austria and Germany. One could even take a taxi from the Hungarian border directly to Vienna, which, according to our sources, would set one back €400. The entire package deal for getting from Serbia to Austria costs somewhere in the neighborhood of €1,500. For the Syrian refugees, the cost of all available options is about three times higher than for the rest. Traffickers consider them to be much wealthier than, for example, Afghans.

To really grasp their predicament, one needs to keep in mind that they are always facing a very real possibility of getting arrested, and that many of them have already spent most of their savings in order to reach Serbia. A large number of them got mugged, either by local criminals, their fellow refugees or even by the police. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of solidarity between different groups of refugees – say between the Syrian and Afghan ones. Sadly, it is quite the contrary.

In Serbia and the wider region, the trafficking sector of the local economy has undergone a considerable boom. The basic set-up is simple, the profits are huge, and the risk is almost non-existent. This is especially so if the traffickers have done their homework and made proper arrangements with the police and the authorities, who are openly aiding refugees in crossing and leaving Serbia as swiftly as possible.

Once you get out in the field and see how things work, it could hardly be more obvious which way the wind blows.

“In Germany, they’re sure to help us” 

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Right after the war started, Ali lost his job in a privately owned company, yet he decided to stick it out in Azaz. In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army gained control of the city for a while, then the Islamic extremists took over. In a flash, the dream of the Syrian revolution became but a tragic memory. What started out as an insurgency against the ruling regime degenerated into a brutal civil war. Countless people started fleeing the devastated country.

“I’m glad that I’m not married and that I don’t have any children. It is so much easier for me this way,” he explained, reflected a common sentiment among young refugees, as we proceeded towards the small Vojvodinian village of Mortanoš, the last notable settlement before the Hungarian border. “Most members of my family had fled to Turkey and decided to stay there. I, on the other hand, am young and I’ve had a good education. I’m going to do everything I can to get a job so I can take care of my parents.”

Where? “I want to go to Germany… In Germany, they’re sure to take us in and help us – after all, we’re refugees, we come from Syria,” he said, with perhaps unfounded optimism.

Like most members of this tattered little group, Ali was growing increasingly cheerful with every step closer to the border. As we entered Mortanoš, the entire group decided to rest. The women sat down on the grass, the children were visibly tired. The men took to discussing the optimal route for this final phase of the Serbian crossing. The local plum trees were quickly being relieved of fruit; it was getting darker by the minute. The refugees knew very well they were approaching the critical part of the journey. Only a little more than 4km were now separating them from the European Union. A gentle breeze picked up over the Pannonian plains.

“What can we do? Like everyone everywhere, we only have one wish. To live in peace. To be safe. Look how lovely this place is. It is so peaceful and quiet. There are fruit trees everywhere,” described Rami enthusiastically. “The people leave us alone, and there is plenty of water. I could certainly live here. You know, right now this seems like a paradise from my dreams.” It was obvious that Rami was getting a little carried away, but how could anyone blame him? With every kilometer, he was becoming less of an attention-starved showman and more of an excited little boy.

Basic human decency

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

At the village’s outer edge, the refugees were approached by a merry-looking elderly fellow, who offered them water from the hose in his garage. The Syrians were visibly confused. As the village dogs’ barking approached a crescendo, they kept exchanging glances. The last few years have made them forget what basic human decency felt like. For them, it had become the exception that proved the rule.

After a few moments, one of the refugees handed out an empty plastic bottle to the old Serbian. Then the others slowly followed suit. Bashful yet profoundly grateful smiles were spreading over their faces as the older man used one hand to pour the water and the other to shoo away the mosquitoes.

“You need to follow the river,” the hospitable local told them in place of a goodbye. “But not up on the banks, you need to go as low down as possible, otherwise the police can spot you. But I haven’t seen them here today…. Here, take some more plums.”

“But you need to be very careful, okay? Good luck to you,” the old man added in parting.

It is very easy to lose one’s faith in humanity. It is infinitely harder to regain it.

As we pushed on, a hush fell over the group. The closer we got to the border, the more the refugees were instinctively huddling together. One of the marching men took hold of his three-year-old daughter and put her on his shoulders. The group’s one elderly man was getting noticeably short of breath but – with the help of a sturdy wooden stick – he somehow still managed to keep pace with the rest. One of the refugees took out a tattered copy of the Quran and started to pray. The sun was slowly setting far away on the horizon. To our right, we could see a stretch of dense boggy forest and the Tisa river. To our left, there was haystack-strewn grassland, a few distant hamlets and the road leading to the official border crossings and further on toward Subotica. The evening light was growing softer as we trekked on to the soundtrack of dogs barking in the distance. Every now and then, we could see a stork touch down in a nearby field. For this particular band of migrants, these were all scenes of Xanadu-like tranquility. A perfect illusion.

“To be honest, I have no idea where we are. I hope we’re on the right track. We really need to hurry. We have to reach Hungary tonight. Once we get across the border we need to avoid being caught by the police. If that happens, we could lose a few weeks,” Rami pointed, his voice growing ever more quiet. “Our group would get broken up, and we also need to avoid getting fingerprinted. That would mean that, even when we reach Germany, they could simply send us back to Hungary at any time. No one here wants to stay in Hungary. Personally, I would much rather stay in Serbia because the people were nicest to us there. Everywhere else we were treated like criminals.”

In Europe, he told me, he is eager to get work – any sort of work at all, as long as it would help him live in peace and safety. Ali, the blue-eyed engineer, felt exactly the same way. Both of them had had their share of the savagery of war. All they wanted was for the people of their new homeland to show a little understanding.

The members of the group weren’t entirely clear on where they needed to veer off into the forest to avoid getting caught by the police. The border itself was rather poorly marked – in some places, there were no noticeable markings at all. And so the group decided to simply follow the tracks left by their predecessors. A trail of discarded objects led them onward. And at the precise moment when their doubts about having chosen the right path were turning critical, two local cyclists drove by down the nearby embankment. Opening their backpacks, the two men distributed a number of plastic water bottles “for the children” and relayed the vital information that the border was now only a 10-minute walk away.

“Simply follow the river all the way. We haven’t seen a single policeman,” one of the cyclists said to encourage them before their imminent ordeal.

Hungarian border patrol

We moved on. In the distance, we could already see the ramp marking the border area where movement is strictly prohibited. Heavy dusk was falling over us, bringing anxiety to the faces of the advancing refugees. The mosquitoes were now out in full force. The women conferred among themselves and decided to make the children put on an additional layer of clothing. The men – many of them had fled their country to another continent with only a small sporty knapsack on their shoulder – were putting the final touches to the group’s strategy. Many of their phones were starting to malfunction.

We crossed the dark Serbian-Hungarian border in complete silence. Only a few steps past the first Hungarian boundary stone the group came to a halt.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Rami put down his backpack and carefully set out on a reconnaissance mission – some hundred meters ahead, he detected a border patrol. He could identify one car and four policemen interrogating a small group of refugees. Two portable toilets were standing next to the police vehicle like some sort of mirage. Business as usual? It was clear that the mere four Hungarian policemen would be unable to stop our group of refugees. We had heard that the border guards often turn a blind eye. Despite the fact that the government had undertaken the huge anti-humanitarian project of putting up the wall, the Hungarian policemen are mostly treating the refugees with fairness and even respect.

But this was, of course, not something the group could definitively rely on. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Anxiety and even plain fear were returning to the refugees’ faces. They had long learned that the combination of borders and uniforms can mean the difference between life and death for them. The anxiety and terror on their faces was thus a matter of pure reflexes, and in such situations, reason is always trailing far behind. The night had fallen, but the moon was mercilessly illuminating the exhausted faces. The refugees quickly slipped into the nearby forest, from which one could hear clear signs of life. As you would expect, our group of refugees wasn’t the only one preparing for the final push into the heart of Europe. We were now on Hungarian soil. All the refugees needed to do to complete this crucial stage on their long journey was to evade the patrol. The children ate a few cookies and plums from their mothers’ backpacks. The rest drank some water. They were all waiting for Rami’s sign.

We bade them farewell.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.0/10 (9 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)

Related posts

عن تجربة اليونان المؤلمة ودروسها لمصر

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

بقلم أسامة دياب وريم عبد الحليم

يوجد الكثير من الدروس المستفادة لمصر من أزمة اليونان الحادة

الخميس 30 يوليو 2015

قبل أن تنضم اليونان لمنطقة اليورو، كان المستثمرون فى العالم يرونها كدولة ترتفع فيها المخاطر الائتمانية عن غيرها من دول أوروبا، بسبب ضعف أطر الحوكمة بالمقارنة بغيرها من الدول الأوروبية. بعد انضمامها لمنطقة اليورو، اختلفت النظرة بسبب الدور المتوقع لمنطقة اليورو فى إنقاذ اليونان من أى أزمة مالية، والإسهام فى دفع اقتصادها عبر الديون الدافعة للنمو.

بدأ المستثمرون ومؤسسات التمويل الدولية فى إقراض اليونان لدفع النمو بها، اقترضت ثم اقترضت وبمعدلات فائدة كانت منخفضة نسبيا عما كان عليه الحال قبل دخول اليونان لليورو، ولكن لم يكن الوضع قابلا للاستدامة؛ فوجود اليونان فى منطقة اليورو نفسه قيد حركتها فى مواجهة أزمة العجز فى الميزان التجارى ومشكلات العملة. واستمرت نسبة الدين للناتج المحلى الإجمالى فى ارتفاع حتى خلال سنوات النمو الاقتصادى 2003 ــ2007.

تفاقمت بشكل واضح الأزمة فى اليونان عام 2009، كنتيجة لمشكلات تزاوج العجز الهيكلى وارتفاع الدين العام كنسبة للناتج المحلى الإجمالى، تلتها أزمة ثقة فى السندات اليونانية وبعدها ارتفاع واضح فى أسعار الفائدة ليغذى العجز مرة أخرى، وتبدأ حلقة الأزمة التى لا تنتهى.

***

تدخل الدائنين الدوليين ممثلين فى اللجنة الأوروبية والبنك المركزى الأوروبى وصندوق النقد الدولى والمعروفين منذ ذلك الحين باسم «الترويكا» فى مايو 2010، بقرض بلغت قيمته 110 مليارات يورو لإنقاذ اليونان من الإفلاس بشرط اتخاذ مجموعة من الإجراءات التقشفية تتلخص فى تحقيق فائض أولى ( فائض الإيرادات عن النفقات مخصوم منها الفوائد المستحقة على الديون) فى الموازنة العامة للدولة يصل إلى 4.5% من الناتج المحلى الإجمالى، وإجراء «إصلاحات» هيكلية وإسراع فى وتيرة الخصخصة لبعض الأصول الحكومية.

حقيقة الأمر أنه فى أبريل 2010 كانت نسب السندات المستحقة للأجانب تمثل نحو 70% من السندات الحكومية فى اليونان، ومن ثم استخدمت جميع القروض التالية لحل الأزمة فى سداد المديونيات، فنحو 92% من أموال حزم الانقاذ ذهبت لمؤسسات التمويل الدولية والبنوك و8% فقط استفادت منها الحكومة اليونانية وفقا لإحصاءات تحالف مؤسسات جوبيلى الهادف لرفع الوعى بتأثيرات الديون السلبية على الاقتصاد. عولت المؤسسات الدولية على هذه «الاصلاحات» للحد من تفاقم عجز الموازنة العامة للدولة وخفض نسبة الدين العام للناتج المحلى الإجمالى بدءا من 2012/ 2013؛ واليوم يقدر صندوق النقد الدولى متطلبات اليونان من الفائض الأولى بنحو 7.2% لمدة عقد من الزمان للوفاء بمتطلباتها، وهو الأمر الذى يستحيل تحققه فى ظل العجز فى ميزان مدفوعاتها وارتفاع أسعار الفائدة والانكماش الاقتصادى، حتى وإن قدر الفائض الأولى المتحقق عام 2013/ 2014 بنحو 2.7% من الناتج المحلى الإجمالى؛ ليكون مؤشرا شاهدا على ما قامت به الحكومة اليونانية من اجراءات تقشفية بالفعل.

والآن مع نسبة ديون للناتج تفوق 175% فى عام 2015، ومعدلات بطالة أكثر من 25%، وتحول أزمة اليونان من أزمة اقتصادية لمعضلة سياسية، تسقط أداتان قام عليهما الاقتصاد العالمى، «الديون الدافعة للنمو» و«الدائن كملاذ أخير للمدينين»؛ وباعتراف المسئولين فى صندوق النقد الدولى، تضع اليونان نهاية لنظرية التقشف كوسيلة لسداد الديون؛ وتضع الاقتصاد العالمى أمام لحظة فارقة مهمة، لابد فيها من مراجعة أدواته الاقتصادية والبحث فى تناقضاتها، مثل كيفية تحقيق نمو مع التقشف، وفرص انتظار ازدهارا فى الدول الأضعف بشروط الدول الأقوى اقتصاديا مع احتكار الثانية لأدوات التمويل وخطط السداد.

***

من الضرورى أن نتعلم من دروس اليونان فى مصر فى ظل أزمة عجز ومديونية متفاقمة حيث زادت خدمة الدين العام كنسبة للناتج المحلى الإجمالى بشكل مطرد فى السنوات الأخيرة من 6.9% فى 2008/2009 إلى 14.1% فى 2013/2014 وفقا لبيانات وزارة المالية، وبمقارنة نسبة الدين العام من الوعاء الذى سيتم السداد منه وهو إجمالى إيرادات الدولة نجد أنه فى السنة المالية 2007/2008 كانت نسبة خدمة الدين العام (سداد الأقساط والفوائد المستحقة على الدين) من إجمالى إيرادات الدولة 25%، وزادت هذه النسبة تدريجيا حتى وصلت إلى 61% فى 2013/2014.

أما إذا تمت مقارنة خدمة الدين بإجمالى الإيرادات الضريبية فقط فنرى أنها زادت تدريجيا من 43.5% 2007/2008 إلى نحو 108% بل إنه وفقا لتوقعات وزارة المالية فى مشروع الموازنة الجديد فمن المتوقع أن تصل تكلفة خدمة الدين إلى أكثر من 122% من جملة الإيرادات الضريبية.

بعبارة أخرى، فإن ما يدفعه مجمل المصريين من جميع أنواع الضرائب (وهو المصدر الرئيسى لتمويل الدولة) لا يكفى الوفاء بمستحقات الدين العام من فوائد وأقساط؛ مع عجز أولى بقطاع الموازنة ارتفع من 1.8% فى عام 2008/ 2009 إلى 4.5% فى عام 2013/ 2014. إذا كان الجانب الأكبر من هذا الدين محليا، إلا أنه امتص غالب السيولة المصرفية، وتتجه الدولة لإصدار سندات دولارية؛ ومحاولات متعددة لخفض عجز الموازنة العامة بها دون جدوى حقيقية خاصة إذا تم استبعاد تأثير الصدفة فى تراجع أسعار النفط عالميا فى العام الماضى. فى الوقت نفسه تراجعت نسبة الإيرادات الحكومية للناتج المحلى الإجمالى من 27.2% فى عام 2008/ 2009 إلى 22.9% فى عام 2013/ 2014 برغم تدفق الإيرادات فى صورة منح من دول الخليج فى هذا العام.

***

فى ضوء كل هذا، كيف يمكن السيطرة على عجز الموازنة ومن ثم تراكم الدين العام بدون تقشف يؤدى إلى تباطؤ أو انكماش اقتصادى كما يحدث فى اليونان، أو تضخم جامح كنتيجة لطبع النقود وزيادة الضرائب على السلع والخدمات والدخول الدنيا. يبدو أن الحل الوحيد أمامنا حاليا من أجل الاستدامة المالية هو العمل على زيادة بند الإيرادات بدلا من تخفيض بند النفقات لتفادى إحداث تباطؤ أو انكماش اقتصادى خاصة وأن المصروفات الحكومية تمثل نحو 30% من الناتج المحلى الإجمالى، فأى تخفيض فيه سيكون له بالغ الأثر على معدلات النمو بلا شك، ومعدلات النمو المرتفعة ضرورية لقدرة الدولة على خدمة الدين بشكل مستدام. والأهم أنه لابد من إعادة النظر فى هيكل المصروفات من منطلق القضاء على المصروفات والبنود المرتبطة بوجود قنوات الفساد وإهدار المال العام، وليس خفض المصروفات لأجل خفضها وبشكل يؤدى إلى المزيد من التدهور فى مستويات الخدمات العامة والحماية الاجتماعية.

تقوم الحكومة بالفعل فى زيادة الإيرادات العامة لكنها تقوم بها بشكل يقوم بتوسيع الفجوة أكثر بين الأغنياء والفقراء والتقليل من القدرة الشرائية للقطاع الأعرض من المواطنين عن طريق زيادة الضرائب على السلع والخدمات وهو ما قد يؤثر على معدلات النمو الحقيقى، ويرجع هذا إلى عدم القدرة على تحصيل ضرائب مباشرة من الأغنياء لأسباب يطول شرحها، فتضطر الحكومة لزيادة الاعتماد على الضرائب غير المباشرة، ففى العشرين عاما الأخيرة زاد الاعتماد على ضريبة السلع والخدمات، وهى الضريبة غير المباشرة الأبرز فى الموازنة، من 27.1% من إجمالى الحصيلة الضريبية فى موازنة 1995/1996 إلى35.3% فى موازنة 2013/2014 مع إعلان وزارة المالية عن وصولها إلى 40% من إجمالى الحصيلة الضريبية فى الفترة ما بين يوليو 2014 وأبريل 2015.

***

وكما أظهرت لنا اليونان فالتقشف الزائد يعنى نموا أقل، وقدرة أقل على الوفاء بالتزامات المديونية ويصطدم بتراجع التوقعات حول الحصيلة الضريبية ومن ثم الإيرادات كنسب للناتج المحلي؛ النظرة لحالة اليونان يضعنا يقينا أمام عدم إمكان التعويل على التقشف أو جذب الأموال الأجنبية مهما كان شكل بيئة الحوافز الممنوحة وما تمثله من خسائر للاقتصاد المصرى، فلابد من حلول تعيد النظر لدور الإيرادات العامة فى تشكيل العجز والنمو، وتتخطى نظريات دفع النمو بالدين ومعاملة العجز فى الموازنة العامة كظاهرة محاسبيه.

____

This article first appeared in al-Shorouq on 7 July 2015. It is reproduced here with the authors’ permission.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts